Welcoming and Integrating Immigrants and Refugees

Boiler Trip from Tibet

Nyiga Tenzin Nordon with her son, Gonpo Dorjee, 16, whose leg was mangled two weeks after he arrived in New York.

Photo: Michelle V. Agins, NY Times

December 30, 2007
The New York Times

After Trip From Tibet, an Injury on Queens Blvd.


Correction Appended

Once they crossed the border between Tibet and Nepal, the guides could take them through the Himalayas under cover of night on a monthlong trek to Katmandu for $75. Or for $250, they could follow a shorter but more dangerous route; they might be more easily caught, but it would take only a week.

Either way, Nyiga Tenzin Nordon could not ask her 9-year-old son, Gonpo Dorjee, to make such a dangerous trip with her and her mother. So she paid a poor Nepalese woman to hide him — dressed in rags, with dirt smeared on his skin — among her own children on a five-hour bus ride to Katmandu. Ms. Nordon would meet him after her weeklong journey from Tibet. From there they would travel by bus with dozens of others into India, to Dharamsala, the center of the Tibetan exile community and home to the Dalai Lama.

It was 2000 when the family escaped from their hometown of Lhasa. The Chinese police had started to come around, asking questions about Ms. Nordon’s sister, Yungchen Lhamo, a Tibetan singer who had become an outspoken critic of the Chinese government during her concerts around the world.

Five decades of Chinese control had been hard on Ms. Nordon’s family and on Tibet, with a systematic dismantling of culture, pride and identity.

Gonpo never knew his father. When he was only 3 weeks old, the police had come knocking, saying they wanted to ask his father a few questions. Gonpo’s father was taken away and died in police custody. Later on, Ms. Nordon discovered he had been part of an underground protest movement. “He never told me,” she said.

Over the years, the Communist government had encouraged all things Chinese in Tibet, giving incentives to the Han Chinese majority to resettle in the sparsely populated regions. Under the Chinese education system, Ms. Nordon never learned to read or write Tibetan — only Chinese.

Five years after arriving in India, Ms. Nordon was granted asylum in the United States. She left Gonpo behind, but he joined her in Queens, where she was living with her sister, in May.

Two weeks after he arrived, Gonpo and Ms. Nordon were waiting to cross Queens Boulevard when a red Jeep Cherokee collided with a silver Honda Civic, shoving the Honda into Gonpo, Ms. Nordon and two other pedestrians. The Jeep drove away. Ms. Nordon passed out. Gonpo’s leg was mangled.

“If they hadn’t rushed him to Bellevue Hospital, they would have lost his leg,” Ms. Nordon said.

A series of operations removed skin and muscle from Gonpo’s thigh to reconstruct his calf. As he lay in the hospital recovering, his grandmother, Nawang Choezom, who had escaped Tibet with them and later joined them in New York, was dying of cancer on another floor of the same hospital. But Ms. Nordon could not leave her son. “He would just hold my hand and say, ‘I don’t want you to go anywhere,’” she said.

Throughout the last several years the family has been helped by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, one of seven beneficiaries of The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. Not only did the agency help push through their applications for political asylum and green cards, it also drew $168.90 from Neediest funds to cover Gonpo’s expenses traveling to medical appointments after his injury.

Gonpo, now 16, has recovered enough to walk slowly, almost without a limp.

Ms. Nordon, who works as a maid at the Hilton Garden Inn in Times Square, faced another challenge recently when her sister decided to give up her apartment in Sunnyside, Queens. Ms. Nordon’s choices were limited because of money; she and Gonpo now share a single room with another person.

Their home in Sunnyside, Queens, was decorated with pictures of the Dalai Lama, embroideries of the Potala Palace, formerly his chief residence in Tibet, and a large shrine.

Ms. Nordon said, “We must have done something wrong in our last life; that is why God and Buddha punish us.”

She added, “When we do the prayer we say, ‘Whatever happened to us, please let it not happen to anyone else.’”

Correction: January 18, 2008

An article in some editions on Dec. 30 about Nyiga Tenzin Nordon, a Tibetan refugee whose son was badly injured by a hit-and-run driver in Queens and who received help through The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, misidentified the hotel where Ms. Nordon works as a maid. It is the Hilton Garden Inn in Times Square, on Eighth Avenue at 48th Street — not the Hilton Times Square, on 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.

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